January 14, 2011: Well. Who would have thought I’d be here?
I am 42 years old. I’ve never been really sick with anything other than a bad cough or the flu in my life. I’m fanatical about good food; I have a ridiculously healthy diet. I get a reasonable amount of exercise and have even started in the past year to think about training for a marathon.
And then, on January 7, I learned that I had colorectal cancer. First of all - cancer? Excuse me, but no, thank you. I’m young and healthy and I have none of the traditional risk factors for this disease. And second - of all the parts of the body to have to talk about, did I have to end up with cancer in this one? Sheesh. If humor helps with the healing process, I should be all set, because with 6 and 9 year old kids, there’s no shortage of butt jokes in this house.
My father died in his early 40s after a struggle with esophageal cancer, so in a way, I'm not entirely surprised to be facing this. As I approached my 40th birthday, I found myself wondering whether I'd manage to sneak through middle age without cancer noticing me, but no such luck. Still, it never really seemed like it would happen. When I got the news, I spent about 24 hours feeling alternately shocked, terrified, and incredulous. I started to imagine what would happen if my kids had to grow up without me. I had horrible images of a painful wasting death in the hospital. I waited to wake up from this bad dream. And then, while putting my 6 year old daughter to bed one night, I realized that there’s one thing that will make me fight harder than anything else I can imagine: threaten my kids, and watch out. If I don’t get through this alive, they will suffer, and I will NOT let anything hurt my children if I can help it. So here I go.
For now, here's where the story begins (warning: it's not possible to discuss rectal cancer without some embarrassing and gross details, including facts about poop and references to exams and procedures that most of us would rather not imagine. I'm over the embarrassment now, as I've got other things to worry about). I am sharing the gory details because plenty of people might experience this and write it off as nothing serious. I encourage anyone who has even remotely similar symptoms to go see a doctor NOW.
It started in August 2010. I thought I had developed some hemorrhoids, because I had some slight bleeding when I went to the bathroom. Most women who've given birth have experienced the joy of hemorrhoids, and know that they usually heal on their own, so I decided to add some fiber to my diet and be done with it. The bleeding came and went over the next few weeks. I had no real pain or discomfort, and didn't give it much thought until October, when I had a sinus infection and a really bad cough. I saw my doctor in search of some heavy duty cough medicine, and mentioned the bleeding to her as an afterthought. She confirmed that sometimes a persistent forceful cough can aggravate hemorrhoids, but after thinking about my dad's history, she suggested a colonoscopy, just in case.
Next step, in November, a lovely little procedure called an anoscopy. You can Google it if you're wondering; it's pretty much what you'd imagine. The result of that was that the surgeon saw a few small internal hemorrhoids, and nothing else. No big deal - we scheduled a colonoscopy just to complete things, but I was sure I had no real reason to worry.
Christmas came and went, and in early January, I went in for the colonoscopy. My husband and I laughed a lot about the prep for the procedure and the awkwardness of the whole thing. I went to the hospital, had an IV and some really lovely sedatives, and settled onto the exam table. I don't know how deeply I was really out, because at some point I heard the words "radiation and chemo" and I opened my eyes to a fascinating view of the inside of my colon on a TV monitor, and then I drifted off again. When I woke in the recovery area, I had a vague idea that something might be really wrong. And, in fact, something was. Dr. Shellito waited for my husband to arrive and then gave us the news that he'd found a rectal tumor, and that it was probably cancer. Well. It's going to be quite an interesting ride.